Facing the Future

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

[Before the Gospel is proclaimed, everyone present will be asked to remain standing at the end.]

Dear Friends, today we celebrate the 32nd anniversary of the Dedication of this Church, and I have asked you to remain standing because I would like to show you the future! What does the future of our parish look like?

First of all, if you are a visitor among us, and this is not the church where you usually worship, please be seated.

Secondly, if for any reason you do not expect to be attending this church most Sundays by this time next year, please be seated.

I wish to show you the future, and we must plan for the long term. I hope that many of us will live long lives of service continuing to contribute to the parish, but for now I would like everyone aged over 75…70…65 to sit down.

Finally, I want to address our brothers and sisters from India, who belong to the Syro-Malabar branch of the Catholic Church. I don’t know what provision your bishop will make in the coming years, but let’s imagine that a priest is sent to Cardiff to celebrate your liturgy, the Holy Qurbana, every Sunday. If you would choose to go to that rather than come here every Sunday, please sit down.

Those of you still standing, have a good look at each other. The future of our parish is in your hands. There is no-one else who can make our parish thrive when our older brothers and sisters find that declining health prevents them giving the wonderful gifts they offer us right now. You too, please be seated – but be attentive!

Give to God what belongs to God.

This was Our Lord’s answer to a trick question designed to catch him out. But it’s a good question. What does belong to God? What are we expected to give Him?

When the Lord invites you to the wedding banquet, will you come? And will you be wearing a wedding garment?

When the Lord looks for fruit in his vineyard, will have have grown any?

When the Lord asks you to work in his vineyard, will you go?

Over the last four Sundays, St Luke has repeatedly told us that God has work for us to do. That work includes the care we give to our families, our work colleagues and the local community – but in particular it applies to our work for this parish community. Today we celebrate the Dedication of the Church. We are the living stones of which our church is built. How dedicated are we?

The fact that we have a church building here in Llanedeyrn makes a statement. It says that we, the Catholics of this parish, takes responsibility for what belongs to God in Llanedeyrn, Pentwyn, Pontprennau and St Edeyrn’s Village. We are not St Brigid’s with St Paul’s. Our brothers and sisters there are responsible for Cyncoed and Llanishen. One question I always have to keep in mind as your Pastor is to ask whether we are still large enough as a community to do God’s work without needing to merge with our neighbours. Let’s assume, for the moment, that we are large enough. What challenges will the future bring?

I’d like to share with you some numbers.

Every year, the parents of about 70 children ask that they should receive First Communion here. Most of those families do not attend Mass regularly. Maybe 10 of those families are not even Catholic. How can we welcome them and encourage them to be active members of our parish family?

Every year, the parents of about 30 infants ask that these children should be baptised here. How can we welcome these and encourage them, too, to be active members of our parish family?

In January, after the Parish Mission, we launched our “Connect & Explore” Groups. About 25 of us came to try them out. Last month, we launched our new season… but only about 10 of us are still coming. That means that almost all of us, more than 300 souls, are not choosing to strengthen our community bonds and deepen our faith through the programme on offer. When we offer coffee and tea after Mass on the second Sunday of each month, maybe fifteen of us stay – but 150 souls leave without joining in. This is not a recipe for a healthy parish.

I know there are good reasons why some of us cannot take part. Maybe some of us work shifts which change from week to week. I have tried to address this by making sure that Connect & Explore runs in three different slots. Maybe some of us don’t like to drink tea or coffee – well, tell our caterers what we should be providing.

Those of you who were the last parishioners standing, you are from many nations, languages and cultures. I know that it takes extra effort to mix when you have to speak a language which is not your mother tongue, or share food which is not your natural palate. But consider this – what happens when a marriage takes place across such boundaries? Let me tell you about Graeme, who is Scottish. He married my friend Alina, who is Polish. Before the wedding, and again regularly afterwards, he went with Alina to visit her family in Poland. Graeme doesn’t speak Polish. Alina’s parents don’t speak much English. But this relationship matters. Alina’s family had become Graeme’s in-laws. So although it wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, Graeme continues to visit Poland, eat their food at their table, and do his best to communicate.

We are the bride of Christ. We celebrate today that in this parish, we are one spiritual family, bound together by our common baptism. But every time we refuse the invitation to spend time with one another, our actions are saying “You are not my family” – and the body of Christ is broken once again.

Now, how are we to respond to these many requests for baptism and first communion from families who do not often attend weekend worship? The law of the church (Canon 843) states: “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, [who] are properly disposed…Pastors of souls and other members of the Christian faithful… have the duty to take care that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them…”

Did you notice that? It’s not only my job as parish priest to help them become ready. It is also your job. You’ve heard the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”? Well, “it takes a parish to make a Catholic”.

Last year, more than 60 children made their first communion in this parish. I’d like any children who made their First Communion in the last 3 years to stand up. [Affirm the children who do.] Is it OK that most of our children are missing now?

Last year, we baptised more than 30 children in this parish. How many of those babies are here right now? I do recognise that it’s difficult for parents to manage small children at Mass – indeed there’s no obligation to bring children under First Communion age to Mass – and I have good news: now that we have launched our parish Toddler Mass, more than 100 people came last Saturday. But that still doesn’t represent all the babies we have baptised. Is it OK that many of our families are missing now?

It’s not OK. So what are we going to do about it?

I want to share with you now the vision that Deacon Steve and myself have for the future.

Next Autumn, September 2018, we will launch something we’re calling the “Parish Connection Programme”. This will be a short course, over several evenings and perhaps a day retreat, that reminds us why we do the things we do as Catholics, why Our Lord Jesus is at the centre of faith, and what it means to be a member of this parish. This programme, or PCP, will be the gateway to receiving Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation in this parish. Do you want your baby baptised? Do the PCP. Do you want to become a Catholic? Do the PCP. Do you want your child to receive First Communion? In order to give your child appropriate parental example and support, do the PCP. What exactly we put into the PCP will be developed over the next few months with our Parish Leadership Group. But next year I will ask all of us to take part in a PCP so it becomes part of the shared history of our parish. I want us to come together from our different languages and cultures and do this together. And those of you who were the last ones standing, I am looking to you in particular to learn to run our Parish Connection Programme.

We will need to run lots of PCPs. Next autumn, a few pioneers will take part and iron out teething troubles. In spring 2019, the graduates of the first courses will run more of them so we can all take part. This will be the way to help our parish grow and become strong. We may need to put some of our other parish actitivies on hold for a few months to make space for this.

We CAN do this.

We NEED to do this.

If we face this with the wrong attitude, giving to God the work that belongs to God, it will become as tedious as paying taxes.

If we do it with the right attitude, we will meet the challenge in the same was as the Thessalonian Christians St Paul addressed his words to: “When we brought the Good News to you, it came to you not only as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. You have shown your faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope.”

We know what we need to do. This week we’ve been comparing notes with other pioneering parishes across the UK, and we know we’re taking the right steps. But we have to work together. We have one year to get ready for this new way of being parish, where all take part in the Parish Connection Programme, so we in turn can offer it to our missing brothers and sisters.

We can do this.

We WILL do this.

Who is ready to stand up and give to God what belongs to God?

 

Great Expectations: Explore

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the First Sunday of Advent, 2016.

I’d like to begin today by inviting the children preparing for their First Holy Communion to come forward. Children, on your first communion day, what kind of clothes are you going to wear? [They will answer, clothes like wedding dresses and wedding suits.]

Do you know why we use wedding dress for First Communion? That only makes sense if we know our Catholic history.

100 years ago, 75 years ago, and perhaps 50 years ago (though things were starting to change then), almost everyone in our country agreed that a wedding marked the beginning of a new family. When a young man and a young woman liked each other, they could go dating, eat together, go dancing together – but they didn’t start living in the same house together until their wedding day. So back then, a wedding wasn’t only a special celebration in the life of a family – it marked a new beginning. From the wedding day on, a brand-new family lived together, at first just a couple, and then hopefully children would come along. The world we live in today has lots of other different ideas about marriage, but in the Catholic Church we hold on to this idea that God’s plan is that a man and a woman first make promises to each other in church, ask for God’s blessing, and then move in together and start a family.

Some of you children have been coming to church since you were babies. Some of you have only started coming in the last few weeks because you want to make your First Holy Communion. Either way, I’m really glad that you’re here with us today. Our job, in the next few months, is to prepare you not only for your First Communion Day, but for the next step of your life as members of St Philip Evans Parish. The reason you wear wedding dress on First Communion Day,  is because it’s the first day of your new life as a connected member of our Parish Family.

exploreEach family has its own rules and values. Last summer, I visited an old college friend who’s got children now, and on his fridge door was a big piece of paper, the “D**** family values”. Over the next few weeks I want to share with you our St Philip Evans Family Values, and the first one is on this banner – it says “explore”.

Some of you were at the Mission Mass at St Philip Evans School recently. What did I give some of the pupils and adults to wear? L-plates, because we are Learners, and D-plates because we are Disciples!

The prophet Isaiah imagined a time to come when people would go to the Temple to learn God’s teaching. Jesus walked among us as a Teacher – the only perfect Teacher of God’s message. He commanded his followers to go and make disciples of all nations. The words “learner” and “disciple” are connected, and that’s quite easy to see in Welsh. In fact, all of us who are followers of Jesus are entitled to display a D-plate! If we’re not “dysgwyr” [learners], we’re not Christians!

So our first St Philip Evans Family Value is to “explore” what Jesus taught us. Most of you are blessed to be in Catholic School so you can spend lots of time in the classroom thinking about Jesus and his stories. I know some of you go to Catechism Class on a Saturday afternoon once a month – how many? When you finish your First Communion Class, the rest of you could join them and do Catechism once a month and know Jesus better.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a word with the grown-ups.

These days, anyone working in a serious job is required to take part “continuing professional development” – to prove they have carried on learning and updating their knowledge and can still work effectively. If that’s important for our earthly work, how much more important is it to prepare us for heaven! So how do we do our “Continuing Faith Development”? Do you ever read the Bible or a Christian book on a regular basis? Do you ever go to a church event that includes an interesting talk or exhibition?

One important thing we need to re-learn is the value of Christian marriage. It’s easy for us to get sucked into the values of the world around which says, “Move in together, start a family, save up and have a big wedding party later.” But our vision is different. When we put God first, a wedding is about a church service which asks for God’s blessing on a new family; save the big party to mark your 10th anniversary if you can’t afford one straight away. But we also believe in second chances in the Catholic Church. Sometimes I meet parents who think that because they’ve already had children, they are not allowed to get married in church. But that’s wrong! It’s never too late to put things right in God’s eyes, and I’ve helped plenty of couples who already have children to make their vows in church. It’s also worth remembering that once you are a baptised Catholic, you must get married in a Catholic Church or with the Church’s permission, otherwise it doesn’t count as far as the Church is concerned.

I don’t want to focus only on marriage. It was one of the things important to Jesus, but there are lots of other things Jesus taught, too. After Christmas, there’ll be lots of opportunities here to explore this. If you can come weekly, the Alpha Course will start on Tuesday nights. If you can come monthly, there’s Call to Question. I’m also thinking of starting a fortnightly group after Monday morning Mass for people who find daytime easier than evenings. We can’t live well as Christians unless we know the teaching of Jesus, and a short 7-minute slot at Sunday Mass isn’t long enough to go into things deeply. We no longer live in a world where Christian values are all around us. We need to take time to listen to Jesus and think about how we do what he asks in our daily lives. Remember, that Jesus warns us that he may come back at an hour we do not expect! If he finds that we have been studying the Bible, the lives of the saints, or the teaching of the church, he will not find fault with us – as long as we are putting into practice what we have learned!

What does the word Disciple mean? LEARNER!

What do you have to be to be a good learner? A LISTENER!

What will you do after Christmas to listen to the teaching of Jesus? That’s up to you, but do something. EXPLORE!

Keep Calm, and Follow Jesus

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

kc1We live in uncertain times. By a small majority, the UK voted to leave the European Union, but no-one quite knows how that’s going to work out.

America has just elected Donald Trump as its president and that too will lead to a time of change.

On this weekend of Remembrance, we recall that 100 years ago, Britain was at war with Germany and her allies. That war was won, but more conflict followed. Sixty years ago, during the Second World War, British civil servants had to prepare for the worst. What if Britain suffered a heavy Nazi bombardment? A series of advisory posters was prepared, but never used. Now, with the safety of half a century between us and the danger, those posters have seen the light of day, and been reproduced on everything from T-shirts to mugs. The words of wisdom? “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

We human beings are good at worrying. Have you noticed how most of the things we give energy to worrying about, never actually happen?

Each of today’s readings is an invitation, in its own way, to keep calm and follow Jesus.

The prophet Malachi speaks of a Day of Judgment coming as a burning fire – but for those who love God, it will be a healing light.

St Paul warned the busybodies in Thessalonica not to get over-excited about what other Christian believers were doing but, well, to keep calm and carry on!

In Jesus’ own time, in the face of a changing world, the Lord said: “Do not be frightened. Your endurance will win you your lives.”

It’s not only the Bible which urges us to avoid worry and fear. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy offered similar advice in an even more pithy form: the words “Don’t Panic!” – written in big friendly letters on the front cover.

How, then, can we keep calm and follow Jesus? Another word for a follower is a “disciple”, which comes from the Latin word for “learner”. How do we “sit at the feet of Jesus” to understand his teachings better?

During our Parish Mission, we had daily opportunities to explore our faith. Each morning, a different member of the Mission Team shared the story of how they came to faith. On the evenings of the Celebration Week, through the spoken word and through movement, we were given a deeper teaching than we have time for in the homily at Sunday Mass.

It’s unusual to have a whole week of such events in our parish, and that won’t happen again for a generation. But it’s normal for a community of Christians to take time once a week, once a fortnight, or at least once a month, to explore more deeply what the Bible says or what our Church teaches. The Mission was called “Great Expectations”. God expects, and your Parish Priest expects, that each one of us will take time at least once a month to explore our faith and to connect with other members of our community beyond the limited social contact we have by attending Mass.

One way of exploring faith is through an Alpha Course. We’re going to run an Alpha weekly on Tuesday evenings from early January. If you’d like to find out more about that, and especially if you are willing to help with the practical side, there’s a meeting in the Small Hall this Tuesday evening.

Not everyone is able to make the time for a weekly commitment, so as well as Alpha, we will soon begin running “Connect & Explore” groups. When will these run? Mornings, afternoons or evenings? Weekly, monthly, fortnightly? That depends on you. I have some survey forms for everyone willing to get involved. Some of you already filled them in earlier this week, but the altar servers will bring them now to anyone who needs one.

There’s a story about a saint, perhaps it was Saint Francis, who was busy sweeping the floor of his churchyard, when a rumour spread around the town that Jesus was going to come back in one hour. Some of the villagers rushed to confession. Others went to make peace with their enemies. Still others sank to their knees to spend the last hour of their lives in deep prayer. But Saint Francis? He just carried on sweeping the floor, comfortable in the knowledge that he was already living his life in the way the Lord expected.

This weekend we remember those who gave their tomorrow for our today, and we offer prayers for their souls.

But let’s also remember the One who laid down his life for us and invited us to follow him. In an uncertain world, the very best thing we can do is stay close to Jesus. We do that through prayer, through serving Him in the poor – and by gathering to explore his teachings. As long as our life is in balance on that score, we have nothing to fear. In short, let’s remember that our Heavenly Father has sent his Beloved Son and asked us to listen to him. Let’s “Keep Calm, and Follow Jesus.”